Nightly shelter opens up in New West's old Army & Navy
The city and Purpose Society want to see the nightly shelter open 24 hours a day in the near future
New Westminster’s Army & Navy is almost nothing like an Army & Navy anymore—but there are telltale signs of the former occupant of 502 Columbia St.
The escalators are cordoned off and all the shelving has been cleared out, making some of the floors a vast, open space.
On the bottom floor, two storeys below Columbia Street where Purpose Society is now operating a shelter, the walls are still lined with metal grids that once would have held products, and signs adorn the walls near the roof, advertising big game and fishing products.
“There is a huge amount of energy there from the past,” said Lynda Gordon-Fletcher, acting executive director of Purpose Society, a New West-based agency providing social, health, and educational programs in the Lower Mainland.
“To be in that building is, for me, really, really, it can be quite nostalgic because it’s certainly still there. I don’t know how to explain it.”
The Army & Navy store closed due to the pandemic in March 2020 and, two months later, its owner announced it would not be reopening.
Purpose Society took over the site shortly after, and it has been operating its school for students with special needs at the site for two years now, in the floor above and the floor below the Columbia-Street-level entrance.
In recent weeks, Purpose Society opened its overnight shelter—which runs seven nights a week—on the bottom floor, after first operating an extreme weather shelter in that space last winter.
Mason Fehr runs the shelter for Purpose Society, and said clients have been “extremely grateful” to have the shelter open.
Last week, he told reporters during a tour that the shelter had 30-plus people staying there each night, but Gordon-Fletcher said it’s likely close to its 50-bed capacity by now.
Included in the space is a larger swath of beds for men, who make up the majority of the shelter’s clients, with about 10 beds off in a corner for women.
Near the men’s beds, two pairs of beds had been pushed together to allow couples to be together.
The shelter reserves beds for clients, meaning a person who slept at the shelter last night can return again tonight and know they will have the same bed. If a client doesn’t return for a few nights and the shelter’s at capacity, however, their bed may be given away.
Clients enter the building through the Front Street entrance, which opens directly into the shelter space, Fehr said, and they’re generally allowed to leave in the night to smoke or, if needed, to use drugs.
Drug consumption isn’t allowed in the shelter, Gordon-Fletcher said, because some clients don’t want to be around for that, and the building’s HVAC system can’t support smoking drugs, which is how most people use drugs.
That being said, Fehr said staff are diligent about doing the rounds outside and keeping an eye on cameras in case anyone shows signs of overdose.
Onsite, the shelter has harm reduction supplies and access to various services, as well as a small kitchen area where clients can get dinner until 11pm. Some meals are provided by Purpose Society, but three times a week the Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar provides meals.
While the space is currently operating as a nightly shelter, the city and Purpose Society are looking for funding to get it to the point of being open 24 hours a day.